The ignominious tradition of presidential truthiness: LBJ


Lyndon Johnson reacts to word of new problems in Vietnam while at the LBJ Ranch in 1964. (image via

Although Donald Trump’s fast-and-loose relationship with the truth dominates today’s 24-hour news cycle, the ability to perpetuate brazen half-truths and outright lies seems to be something of a common thread with regard to America’s cavalcade of chief executives. From the Bay of Pigs debacle to the invasion of Grenada to conspicuous absence of WMDs in Iraq – not to mention hundreds of other reprehensible incidents and affairs both large and small – American presidents have proven themselves to be adept and overzealous at distorting reality to serve their political objectives.

Dan Rather’s 2012 autobiography Rather Outspoken: My Life In the News provides a few anecdotes of presidential misadventures, including a particularly stark example of LBJ’s drive to stuff his own words down the proverbial memory hole:

One story George [Christian ] told me from early in his time as press secretary illustrates his approach. “Mr. President, I am pleased to be here and honored to be of service to you and to the country. But I am no miracle worker, and I want to disabuse you of that. I cannot turn things on a dime here. Let’s take your problems one at a time. I am not going to try to solve everything. Give me the problem that worries you the most, and let me begin by taking on that one.”

“George,” LBJ responded, “everywhere I look those sum’ bitches— the press—are quoting me as saying, ‘I will not send American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves.’ I am supposed to have said that early in our involvement in Vietnam, and George, I never said it. Still, it keeps coming back to haunt me. Now it s become some version of g**damn urban myth. I am tired of getting hit over the head with it. Fix it.”

“Okay, Mr. President.”

George returned after a few days to give Johnson a report on what he discovered. “Mr. President, I don’t want you to get mad at me. I haven’t solved this problem, but I want to show you the dimensions of it.” At that, several interns entered the office carrying stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines. “Mr. President, every one of these publications has you saying it—not just as an indirect quote, but in direct quotes.”

“That’s what I am telling you, George!” Johnson shouted. “They keep printing it, but it isn’t true. I never said it.”

A couple of days later, Christian returned to the Oval Office with a tape recorder. He placed it on the desk and said, “Mr. President, I don’t want you to get mad at me, but the puzzle is deepening.” With that, Christian pressed “Play” on the recorder, and there came the unmistakable voice of LBJ saying the quote.

Johnson’s temper got the better of him once again, and he demolished the tape recorder with his polar bear paws. “G**damn, George! I didn’t realize what a complete idiot you really are. You know what these guys do: They piece these things together, they take a little razor blade, cut a piece here and add there.”

“I believe you, Mr. President,” Christian answered patiently, “but I wanted you to know that these recordings are everywhere.”

About a week later, LBJ hosted a group of guests in the White House screening room for a showing of The Alamo, with John Wayne. George was in attendance. “Mr. President, I’d appreciate it if we could get together, just the two of us, after the movie. I have something I’d like you to see.”

After the guests departed, Christian gave the signal to roll his footage. Up on the full screen came the unmistakable image of LBJ, standing on the bumper of a limo on a darkened street corner in Philadelphia. Johnson was speaking through a bullhorn, saying, “I will not send American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves!”

“Damn, George,” Johnson said as the lights came back up. “You sure that’s me?”

Source: Rather Outspoken, pp. 127-129.

Excerpted quotes presented under the terms of Fair Use.

“Kenneth, what is the frequency?”

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Between Catholicism and Marxism

For much of the 20th century, the Catholic Church and the worldwide communist movement were pitted against one another, portrayed as natural enemies by the highest echelons of the Church hierarchy, including the virulently anti-communist Pope John Paul II. It was a narrative that many were all too willing to accept.

To be sure, there wasn’t much overlap between Marxist circles and the Catholic community at large, with a few exceptions, including those who were drawn to Liberation theology in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. Dorothy Day, a Lay Catholic who is now on the path to canonization, is another noteworthy exception to the Catholic Church’s general line on Marxism during the Cold War, for although she eventually distanced herself from formal association with communist organizations, she recalled her interactions with Marxists favorably, even in the aftermath of the first Red Scare.

The following excerpts are from the 1943 essay “About Mary,”[1] which appears in the Liturgical Press publication Hold Nothing Back: Writings by Dorothy Day.

“Across the street from where I lived, I think it was on St. Peter Street, there was the side entrance to the cathedral. Every night I used to go in there for Benediction. Perhaps I was influenced by reading the novels of Huysmans that I had borrowed from Sam Putnam’s library in Chicago. My roommate was Mary Gordon (when I last heard of her, she was working for the League for Spanish Democracy in Chicago, a Communist affiliate), and that Christmas she gave me a rosary. So in this case I was led to the Church through two Communists. I did not know how to say the rosary, but I got a little prayer book at a Catholic book store which I often visited, and I learned how.

[ . . . ]

One summer right after I became a Catholic I was taking care of a number of little boys from a school “for individual development.” Together with Freda, my next-door neighbor, whose friend it was who ran the school, we took the responsibility for about a dozen boys between eight and twelve. Quite a few of them were children of Communist parents, and several of them have grown up now to be members of the Young Communist League. I used to read them the “Little Flowers of Saint Francis,” which they enjoyed immensely, and they used to command each other “in the name of holy obedience” to perform this or that act of mischief. They also used to ask me to burn candles for them before the little blue statue of the Blessed Mother. Do any of them remember her now?”

Dorothy Day also drew upon her knowledge of the formative years of Marxism as a movement in her book Thérèse: A Life of Thérèse of Lisieux. Published in 1979, Thérèse includes chapters on the early lives of Saint Louis Martin and Saint Marie-Azélie Guérin, the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

“Louis Martin lived in the days of the beginnings of revolutionary thought, of Kropotkin, whose thinking was shaped by the watchmakers of the Jura mountains where Louis himself studied. He lived in those vital years of 1850-1890 when Marxism and anarchism struggled for possession of the First International. He lived at the same time as Proudhon, the unMarxian socialist, as Father de Lubac, S.J., called him, who said “Property is theft.” I have often wondered whether in his long years of apprenticeship Louis Martin ever engaged in discussion of the social problems of the day. I am sure that there must have been some talk of the revolution of 1848, of the condition of the working classes.”

Though critical of “Bolshevism” in a number of her writings, Dorothy Day also expressed support for imprisoned American communists in 1949 and publicly sympathized with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution in 1961.

Copyrighted quotes presented under the terms of Fair Use.

[1] Originally published in Commonweal 39 (November 5, 1943): 62:63.


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Forgotten photos, rediscovered: White Birch on Sucker Creek

Some years ago, I bought an odd collection of items at a garage sale, including some Russian pins, a Masonic Bible, and a stack of about 20 black and white photos. I didn’t know the people in the photos, but they were very interesting and I kind of got the feeling that it would be a shame to just leave them there, as they were probably bound for the trash can if they didn’t sell. I think I ended up paying $2 for the photos (and just a bit more for the other aforementioned items.)

The pictures ended up sitting in the drawer of my computer desk for years and I always hoped that I might ultimately do something cool with them, but I couldn’t seem to come up with many worthwhile ideas. After all, they were vacation photos of people who I didn’t know and I didn’t have much insight into their origins. However, I got some fresh inspiration when I revisited a collection of slides that included the missile silo hatch photo featured in another blog post. The response I got to that particular post via social media mortivated me to give my small batch of garage sale pics another look. My initial idea was to try and ascertain when the black and white pics were originally taken, but there are really no clues anywhere on the photos – no date stamps or anything like that. There are, however, a few handwritten notes on the back of the photos with captions like “Along the West Branch River” and “The log jam on Sucker Creek.” After a bit of research, I ultimately determine that the photos were taken in central Michigan. I still couldn’t figure out the exact date of the pictures, though, and the best I could figure is that they were from the mid 1960s. I had, of course, hoped to determine something more specific.

In reading a bit more online about the history of photo paper and the like, I actually stumbled upon something even more fascinating: An endeavor called Algorithmia has created a free service that colorizes black and white photos by utilizing deep learning models. I was intrigued, so I scanned a photo from my garage sale batch for a test run. On the back of the picture was the handwritten caption “White birch on Sucker Creek.” The results – rendered in less than one minute – were breathtaking. Indeed, after holding on to these photos for years, I was finally able to look at one of them in a whole different light, ostensibly seeing the very the scene that the now anonymous original photographer saw somewhere around 50 years ago.

“White birch on Sucker Creek”
(date and photographer unknown)
Original black and white photo.


“White birch on Sucker Creek”
Colorized version via Algorithmia

I’ll be sharing additional colorized photos from this batch (and other sources) in the near future.

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Forgotten photos: Unidentified stationary object

NOTE: After I shared this via social media, some intrepid friends launched their own investigations and came up with a plausible conclusion. I have added their suggestions at the end of this article.

* * *

As I previously mentioned in my post about the Mitchell Corn Palace, I’m slowly working my way through a few batches of 35mm slides that I have acquired at thrift stores and other outlets over the years. Here’s another one, and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher:

Setting and subject unknown, Jan. 1980
Click on the picture for a larger image.

This slide is dated January 1980 and the scene seems like something out of an episode of the old show In Search of…  It is somewhat difficult to figure out the approximate dimensions of the main object. In some respects, it looks like a vent or skylight for an underground chamber. Rather than giving away any clues to the location of this scene, the forest and hills in the background add a bit to the mystery of it all.

I have tried a few times to identify the scene or location shown in the photo and I have yet to come up with any clues.

At this point, I welcome any suggestions as to what the image depicts. If your info checks out, I’ll give you credit here on the site.

The image above was produced using a Wolverine F2D-8 slide & negative scanner.

UPDATE (March 12, 2017): My friend Fowaz noted that the photo above looks a lot like a hatch for a missile silo, sharing a number of images for comparison [Image 1 | Image 2 |  Image 3]. Another friend — who served in the Air Force until retirement — agreed, adding that the hatch might have been for a Titan missile silo.

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